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Baby bison keep Fermilab herdsman hopping

Baby bison born at Fermilab

At the high-tech scientific center that is Fermilab in Batavia, Cleo Garcia has a unique job – herdsman.

Garcia is in charge of managing Fermilab’s herd of bison on a day-to-day basis. Every spring, the herd is in the spotlight as baby bison are born.

The baby bison nursery is a big attraction at the particle physics laboratory in Batavia. Garcia said three calves were born in the past week. Expectant bison mothers will give birth any day to five more baby calves, he said.

He said a team is in charge of managing the herd. This time of year in particular is busy.

"We closely watch that the calves start walking and are feeding," Garcia said.

He said it’s also a busy time of year for families and wildlife enthusiasts eager to see the offspring.

"We have people that come every day to monitor the progress," he said.

The young bison nurse and rest throughout the day, he said. Occasionally they will burst into a sudden sprint with the mothers clustered around them.

Garcia said he helped on his uncle’s cattle farm in Mexico so he is familiar with raising animals.

"In many respects the bison are strong animals. They can endure the cold winters," he said.

Is there anything cuter than a baby animal? Maybe, but let’s celebrate the adorable little critters being born at zoos around the world.

In all, 17 bison and three newborns live on a secured 77-acre gated community at the lab.

"They are enjoying the sunlight. Who can blame them," he said Monday.

Fermilab’s bison herd is a tradition initiated by Robert Wilson, the laboratory’s first director, as a symbol of the history of the Midwestern prairie. Wilson introduced the first American bison, a bull and four cows, to Fermilab in 1969.

The bison are given a dairy-protein feed and in a separate self-feeder they take a mineral supplement for their dietary needs.

Garcia said for the most part the bison are docile animals when he goes out in his truck to check on them. However, they can get aggressive after giving birth.

"We have no reason to get out of our trucks nor would we. They are wild animals and we respect their space," he said.

At birth, bison calves weigh about 40 pounds. Full-grown bulls can weigh as much as 2,000 to 2,500 pounds, while the females are about 800 to 1,200 pounds. The bison calves are typically born in the spring, late April to June.

Fermilab discovered last year through a test that the bison in their herd are purebreds. Fermilab submitted tail hair samples of the lab’s 17 animals for genetic testing and discovered that they are 100 percent bison with "no evidence of cattle genes."

The adults are dark brown and the calves are cinnamon-colored. One of the newborns this spring has fur that is chocolate-colored, which is rare to see.

"People comment how the baby bison look warm and fuzzy," said Dave Shemanske, grounds manager at Fermilab. "Most are born with the cinnamon-colored fur but occasionally one will be darker. It’s like noticing a baby being born with a full head of hair."

Shemanske said the bison are part of the Fermilab family.

"We’re always talking about them. With 15 cows, we talk about which one looks ready to give birth. Some have better dispositions than others. Just like human beings, they exhibit different attitudes. Some appear easier to get along with than others," he said.

The site is open every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and admission is free. A valid photo ID is needed to enter the site. For visitor information, go to www.fnal.gov or call 630-840-3351.

Linda Girardi is a freelance reporter for The Beacon-News